Interview: Shelley Kerr, Stirling University coach

Shelley Kerr: The first woman to manage a senior British football team. Picture: John Devlin
Shelley Kerr: The first woman to manage a senior British football team. Picture: John Devlin
Share this article
Have your say

First woman to take charge of a British senior team is getting used to the attention

Shelley Kerr is taking me on a tour of West Calder, pointing out the old Co-operative building with its handsome spire and the primary school where her football prowess was first noted. I’m looking for the Regal, venue for a memorable Elvis Costello gig when, perversely, at the height of his fame, the new wave troubadour toured small, out-of-the-way places. The picture-house played a formative part in Webb’s adolescence too – “Most nights we used to hang about on the steps,” she laughs – but, alas, it has disappeared from the West Lothian town. Still, another of her youthful haunts, Cafe Nuovo, is very much in business and we stop there for a coffee.

“See her picture in a thousand places ’cause she’s this year’s girl,” sang Elvis. Kerr’s was everywhere when she was appointed the first woman to manage a senior British football team, Stirling University in the Scottish Lowland League. She found the fuss and bother oppressive as the cameras followed her from first whistle to last. What were they hoping for: classic male touchline behaviour such as gum-chewing, head-butting, using the c-word to address rival managers?

Maybe they were disappointed by a perceived glamour deficiency. The stupidest request she’s had thus far? “One photographer was obviously unimpressed by having to shoot me in a tracksuit,” she says, sipping her Americano. “He said: ‘You couldn’t slip on a pair of high heels, could you?’”

Let me leap to Kerr’s defence and say that today in skinny jeans and jumper she’s very glamorous, more so than in photos which have tended to show her in dugout-shouting mode. But let me mention nothing more about her looks because I don’t want to be accused of dwelling on her appearance owing to the fact she’s a woman when you obviously think I wouldn’t do this if the subject of the interview were, say, Jimmy Calderwood or Bobby Williamson (though, actually, I would).

Eventually the media frenzy calmed down and Kerr could get on with the job of managing her team, who currently sit sixth in the league, although tomorrow’s game will again bring out more than just the local paper and the student mag. It’s the William Hill Scottish Cup, Stirling Uni v Albion Rovers, a second-round tie pitting the undergraduates against the team who almost dumped Rangers out of last season’s competition – and did you know that the varsity XI are managed by an actual, real woman? She’ll cope better with the attention this time and, you never know, the snappers might have learned not to hope for the stiletto-ed look.

“Those first couple of weeks were mayhem – a huge distraction,” says Kerr, who created history in August. “I had to do interviews for Brazil and Spain, all over, and an Israeli journalist even dragged me into the debate about the independence referendum.” That was a neat trick: getting one of Scotland’s newsmakers to comment on another. When she rationalised the inquiries, she concluded that they amounted to good publicity for the Lowland League. Nevertheless, I’m interested in which of them was the most irrational. “People were looking for a story,” she adds. “The job often required managers to be aggressive – could I do this? Could I just walk into a changing-room full of men?”

At the time of Kerr’s appointment, a male manager of a women’s team offered up his method: you talk to them and, when it’s time to get changed, you leave and come back in 15 minutes and if they’re not ready it’s their problem. “I don’t do anything different from when I managed women,” insists the ex-boss of Arsenal Ladies. “Powerpoint presentation, five slides, a quick resumé of the game-plan. When I was a player, I hardly ever listened to the manager at that moment, to be honest. There’s only so much information you can take in.

“The players have all got their ways of getting ready: some listen to music, others like to clown around. I don’t think anyone has toned down their behaviour because I’m a woman, and nor would I want them to. Listen, nothing fazes me; I’m a confident person. But I have to acknowledge that this is a university team and a good starting-point for me.” The inference here is clear: despite the pervasive pong of Ralgex and jockstrap, the dressing-room air is slightly more rarefied, slightly less macho, a bit less laddish, a bit more civilised.

Kerr is the 44-year-old, 59-times-capped, former captain of the Scotland women’s team who turned out for a host of clubs, including Doncaster Belles. She swears by the art of central defence, so much so that, when I ask for her favourite goal from the last World Cup, she says: “Football is about more than scoring goals, Aidan.” The majestic Paolo Maldini, 40-odd goals but a million brilliant tackles and interceptions, is her all-time favourite player.

The youngest of four kids born to Jimmy, a joiner, and Christine, she can’t remember when she didn’t love football. “I played with my brothers, Kevin and Colin, and because they were older I had to fight like mad for everything. If you wanted to compete you had to be strong and show a bit of character. I played for my primary school and it’s probably thanks to the art teacher, Tom Wilkinson, that I’m talking to you now because he picked me for the team as its first girl. I was the only girl in the league. ‘Look,’ the other schools would go, ‘they’ve got a girl’. If games were ever cancelled I would cry in my bedroom.

“And when I was banned from playing for my secondary because those were the rules, my mum wrote to the school asking if I could at least miss Scottish country dancing with the other girls and train with the team and, to be fair to them, they let me.”

Her mother, though, tried to temper the grand obsession. “ ‘Are you playing football again?’ she’d say. Mum’s an amazing, amazing woman. I’m a mother myself but am nowhere near as maternal as her. And although Mum maybe thinks she didn’t have much influence as regards my football – I was a real daddy’s girl – she’s been there for me in so many other ways, which is priceless really.”

Kerr has a sister, Pamela, and growing up they were like chalk and cheese. She adds: “Pamela was a girlie girl. In her bedroom there was a mirror, make-up, jewellery. Above my bed there were posters of Kenny Dalglish and Charlie Nicholas. Pamela was very attractive and very popular with the boys.” And the tracksuited tomboy? “I did get male attention, but it was to come outside and play football!”

Running errands for her mother along the streets of West Calder, Kerr always kicked a ball. A special day was when an uncle collected her from school, aged six, and whisked her through to Edinburgh for her first strip, in the maroon of Hearts. For a family holiday at Butlins in the summer of 1978, she got the diamond-sleeved Scotland shirt worn to less than glistening effect in Argentina. “Even at 15 when you’re supposed to mature a little bit I was still wanting strips for Christmas.”

First game: Hearts v Motherwell at Tynecastle. First pair of boots: Puma, as endorsed by King Kenny. Kerr’s passion for football eventually outstripped that of her brothers. She played Space Invaders in this cafe and pumped its jukebox for Depeche Mode and Bronski Beat but, really, nothing else mattered to her. “Very briefly, I was a Mod!” she laughs. “A few of us would go up to East Calder on Fridays nights and listen to records in the Scout Hall. I had a boyfriend and he had a scooter.”

She had to venture into the capital to find a girls’ team, Edinburgh Dynamo. “Training was at Meadowbank. I used to run there from the railway station I was so keen.” These were less enlightened times – did her love of football mark her down to some as odd? “If it did I was oblivious and didn’t care. Coming from a small town, folk just knew me as Christine and Jimmy’s girl who loved football.” Looking back over the time she has been involved in it, Kerr is amazed at how far the women’s game has come, in terms of acceptance, structure and quality. Edinburgh Dynamo played in a league of ten teams; now, in the current jargon, a female footballer has a “pathway” along which to progress. But there’s still work to be done. Reflecting on her carefree upbringing she adds: “Society’s changed and we’ve lost a bit of the competitive edge. Freedom and responsibility are lacking now, and that’s true for young men as it is young women.”

As a manager, Kerr was perfectly happy coaching women but knew there was a bigger test out there. “I think some of my former team-mates would tell you I was trying to be a coach when I was playing,” she smiles. “I felt I was a leader who wanted to help others, even when she herself was having a bit of a nightmare!” Her desire to coach men was down to her ambition. “It’s about being the best you can be. As a coach, whether it’s women or men, I don’t see the gender thing as an issue. But working with men was going to be a challenge. Even though women’s football has a huge profile now, the men’s game is the top end. Men are quicker and more physical, that’s just genetics. Plus there was the fact no woman had ever done it before.”

Not in real life, anyway. Cherie Lunghi was the Manageress in the telly drama of that name as the 1980s ended. Kerr – by that stage working on a VCR assembly-line at Mitsubishi which she would eventually manage – remembers the programme, thinks she might have watched a couple of episodes, but, as ever, was too busy playing football. The Manageress wasn’t a bad show but it did seem like fantasy.

Kerr wasn’t quite the first female appointment to a senior team of men. Back in May in France, Helena Costa took over at Clermont Foot 63. Cue fanfares, cue fevered chatter about one of the last male bastions being toppled. But 49 days later Costa quit, complaining she was the “face” of the club but had been denied real power – le publicity stunt, in other words. Kerr had to discuss the appointment on the BBC’s World Service. Suspicion about Clermont Foot 63’s motives increased when they replaced Costa with another woman, Corinne Diacre. But Kerr, ever the optimist, finds the positive in this.

She is obliged to have a view on many things beyond her favoured defensive formation and these she provides with only the slightest of sighs. Of course, Gaby Logan talking about football on TV and Sian Massey running the line in matches have made her cheer, although she adds: “No one makes a distinction between a male doctor and a female one, do they?” I ask about Gregory’s Girl – is she a fan of the movie? “It was tongue-in-cheek, wasn’t it? You’d want a film to portray a woman’s skill at football.” I thought, in twinkle-toed Dee Hepburn, it did that, but maybe Kerr had issues with the lousy defending, even if the boys were mainly responsible.

I ask too about the Andy Gray-Richard Keys controversy of a few years back but Kerr sidesteps this in the manner of dribbling queen Dee. “You can’t control what other people say. I understand there’s a profile to my job, being the only woman manager, but I think you’re better to concentrate on the things you believe in. As I say, I never had any problem [with misogynist attitudes] when I was a player and, so far, as a coach I’ve had great support from guys in the game.”

Kerr’s ambition doesn’t end here. “Could a woman manage in the top league? I don’t see why not. I want to work at the highest level but know I’ll have to walk before I can run and, right now, I want to be successful at Stirling University. So far, the league has been tough for us but here’s a break from that, a game in a great old competition such as the Scottish Cup. We’re a young team, enthusiastic but still developing. No one expects us to beat Albion Rovers so I’d like them to go out and enjoy themselves and play with freedom.”

If they can display something of the freedom of their coach, kicking a ball along the streets of this town, standing out from the crowd as a girl who loved the game, they should do all right.